Dr. John Bryant Guided HCPS Through the Pandemic - TribPapers

Dr. John Bryant Guided HCPS Through the Pandemic

HCPS Supt. Dr. John Bryant is about to work for Pardee UNC Health. Photo by Pete Zamplas

Hendersonville – Dr. John Bryant led Henderson County Public Schools through a maze of pandemic changes, including the gradual restoration of in-school learning, during his two-year tenure as superintendent.

“We found out what grit looks like,” Bryant said. Schools adjusted with “grace, patience, and collaboration” of teachers, students, families, and administrators. “We showed much pride. We’re all in this together. The pandemic affected families, our work force, and healthcare.”

The charismatic Bryant shifts education-related jobs within the county on July 1, when Mark Garrett succeeds him as superintendent. Garrett was superintendent of McDowell County Schools for nearly a decade—since 2013.

Bryant becomes Pardee UNC Health Care-Hendersonville’s vice-president of Workforce Development and Community Affairs. He said he will lead the “recruitment and retention” of more healthcare workers by working with area K-12 schools and community colleges.” He said more workers are needed in health care, and current workers are “incredibly taxed.” He recently served on Pardee’s board of directors.

Bryant was superintendent from Dec. 1, 2020, to June 30, 2022 — an academic year and a half. He followed Bo Caldwell, who retired. School Board member Chr. Blair Craven praised Bryant’s “vision and energy” and called him a “treasure.”

Bryant taught from 1999–2006 and then was an administrator from 2006–22. He was East Henderson High’s assistant principal/athletic director in 2007–11, and Marlow Elementary principal in 2011–14.

Facilities, Security

Bryant was a central office administrator for eight years, starting in 2014 as senior director of Human Resources. He oversaw facilities as an associate superintendent, heading Administrative Services. He is proud of the new state-of-the-art Edneyville Elementary that opened in 2019, and for planning Hendersonville High’s renovations.

HHS will hold a ribbon cutting in early August for its final phase—reopening the renovated century-old Stillwell classroom building and revamped Dietz Field with artificial turf, and a new courtyard. Those facilities were closed while being worked on, as HHS students used the huge new main classroom building that opened last August. Bryant compared renovation on an active campus to “renovating any part of your house while still living there.”

School security safeguards recently rose under the guidance of him and prior Supt. Caldwell. “We put SROs (school resource officers) at more schools. Pre-pandemic, we put in double-point entry” in schools. “We’ve been training with law enforcement and emergency responders” to plan an effective and efficient crisis response. “We realize there’s much we cannot control. It’s unnerving when you’re dealing with people who want to do harm “such as recent school shootings.

Adjusting on the Fly

Bryant’s number one achievement is guiding schools through the COVID-19 pandemic. “I’m most proud of the resiliency of our people—and our students and school communities,” he said. “Adversity doesn’t build character; it reveals it. It was tested and tested—in ways we didn’t imagine.”

Through it all, we “kept our mission focused on serving children, even when incredibly complicated. Our (guiding) north star was about the health and safety of students and staff, and the stable operations of the school.”

Policies shifted amidst changing nationwide and area health signals and N.C. Department of Public Instruction directives. “We were constantly evaluating decisions to make based on the (health) information we had. We don’t have the luxury of rearview mirrors. We had to decide for 15,000 people.”

First was a sudden statewide shutdown of school buildings in mid-March of 2020. Learning became fully remote and online. Spring sports were scrapped very early in the season. “At first, we heard it’ll last only a week,” Bryant recalled. “Then they cancelled in-person learning of every child across the country, for the rest of the year.”

When asked to what extent test scores and other standards for mastering learning were eased to finish 2019-20, Bryant said HCPS followed the “state direction to put on hold” such usual requirements. Instead it was mostly about “safety, support and connectivity of every child. It was about survival.”

Remote Learning

Bryant said “some flourished” by learning from home. “They loved their independence. But some struggled. Some students were at high risk” if having to learn from home, due to dysfunctional “circumstances at home. We were navigating every individual’s feelings and personal status, and also general operations.” Some students told the Tribune they focused better when learning from home. But others said they did not stay on task. They missed friends at school, and teachers promptly answered their questions.

Remote learning was much “better utilized” in the fall of 2020 than in the spring. It’s like turning a battle ship on a dime. Students and teachers become familiar with (group instructional) Zoom calls and Google Meets. It took a new set of strategies to navigate this technology. We had to figure how to maximize (curriculum) mastery in a completely different environment.”

In-Person is Best

Yet he said, “we recognize face-to-face learning is in our best interest. In person, the teacher can tell if you’re paying attention. But on a device, I can’t watch 26 (student) screens at one time.” Many lessons are missed if they are not paying attention.

HCPS had phases of remote-only earlier in 2020–21, then an option for remote or in-person learning but with reduced capacity. Around half of a school’s students (i.e. certain grades) attended in person on some days, and the remaining students went there on other days.

“We had to flip back to fully virtual at four schools around Christmas of last year” with many staff ill and too few subs available, Bryant said. The switch took merely 72 hours, while other school systems took weeks. And “we avoided going fully virtual” system-wide.

Capacity limits have varied over time for school athletics. Fall 2020 sports were delayed until early 2021—with no fans. Next was limited capacity. In 2021-22, there was an easing of limits on capacity and mask wearing, which eventually became optional. Many students kept wearing masks.

Earlier, facial coverings were required for in-person learning in 2020–21, for indoor sporting and other events, and initially at outdoor games. Wearing masks was foreseen by many as the toughest on elementary students, who are most apt to get fidgety and touch their faces.

“I never met anyone who wanted to wear a mask,” Bryant said, but students complied and “took their cues from adults. Our people did whatever it takes to keep us in the schools, face to face. It’s so important for students’ mental and social development.”

Dr. Bryant said that in leaving school administration, “I’ll miss the people I work with, and the children we serve. It’s with great emotion” that he makes this career transition.